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Politics and Policy

#NVLeg Week 16: The Building Is Open, But Budgets Are Closing

Multiple people are sitting in a semicircle-shaped auditorium. There is a podium at the front of the room.
David Calvert
The Nevada Independent
Members of the Assembly during the floor session inside the Legislature on March 9 in Carson City, Nev.

Portions of Nevada’s economy have recovered faster than previously predicted, and lawmakers are using that to their advantage. This week, the legislature’s two finance committees took steps to finalize the budget. The effort includes a new education funding formula and an additional $500 million for the state’s K-12 education system. To help explain what that means for students, KUNR host Michele Ravera spoke with political editor Paul Boger.

Michele Ravera: Let’s talk about education funding. Lawmakers are now just a few steps away from implementing what’s been dubbed the new pupil-centered funding plan. Where is that measure in the legislature, and how is that going to affect the budget?

Paul Boger: So essentially, that’s just been passed out of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. That was a Senate bill. So it’s already been through the Senate, but Assembly Ways and Means passed an amended version of the bill. That does a couple of things. [It] allows the state to create a reserve for school districts in case there is a situation, like a pandemic or a recession or an economic [downturn]. They can use that money to pull from and help districts out if they need it.

They also changed this portion of the bill, talking about ending fund balance. That is what unions have been very upset about. They use that money, that ending fund balance, to negotiate higher wages and benefits at the end of the year. Under the [current] law, or the way it was written before, they had a portion of that money — 16.6% sectioned off, walled off — they say, making it ineligible for negotiations, lawmakers dropped that limit. They [now] put it at 12%, which is kind of a 50-50 split. The union wanted 8%, lawmakers had at 16.6%, 12% is right in the middle. So that's probably going to move through the Assembly fairly quickly, then back to the Senate to approve those changes, and then off to the governor. Everybody's on board with this, at this point, that I've talked to. So this is probably going to sail through pretty quickly.

Ravera: Well, lawmakers were also considering a bill intended to create statewide public health care options. That's still pretty new. Is any other state doing that? Do we have an understanding of how the bill would work?

Boger: Yeah, so only one other state at this point has a “public health care option,” and that’s Washington. They call it Cascade Care. This works a little bit differently, but one of the big things in this bill is that they’re trying to raise Medicaid eligibility to 200% of federal poverty levels. You know, that’s not a huge increase. So looking at the budget and looking at how this would work, you know, they’re [saying] that any insurance company that offers money, or offers a plan through the state’s healthcare exchange or offers a plan through Medicaid, they [would] have to also put up a public option at lower rates. That’s what the bill still does. It’s that larger portion of the Medicaid expansion. That’s where the biggest draw is going to be on the money.

Ravera: Well, between the new money going to education and this public option, that could be expensive. Can the state afford it?

Boger: Yeah. So, $500 million more towards education. Medicaid expansion, or expanding eligibility, I should say, I think it would cost about $25 million, is what I heard in the hearing the other day for the first biennium. Maybe $35 million for the second biennium. So, these are pretty significant increases in the budget. So the state can kind of afford it, and we can kind of afford it because we have the federal money coming in through the federal COVID relief. That’s one-time money. That’s not something that you want to build recurring budgets around, right? But you also have this potential tax increase with the mining taxes. That is something that we have yet to hear about this session.

There are 10 days left. You would think if we’re going to have tax conversations, we might’ve had them in the previous three months, but that’s not quite how the legislature works. They seem to do everything in the last two weeks. So here we are in those last two weeks, [and] maybe we will finally hear those conversations regarding mining taxes. So, that’s honestly the question. It depends on these conversations about tax increases that we have yet to have publicly in the legislature.

Ravera: That is great. I really appreciate that information. Now with the remaining minute or so we have left, with everything that's been going on, what else are you keeping your eye on these days?

Boger: We are approaching the finish line, and I think one of the more interesting things is that now that we’re pretty close to the end, the building’s open, right? So we’ve got new rules from the CDC that say fully vaccinated folks can be indoors with other fully vaccinated folks pretty safely. So the building’s been open, there are mask requirements for folks who aren’t vaccinated, but no one’s checking IDs; no one’s checking vax cards.

That being said, we did see a member of the Assembly censured yesterday for refusing to wear a mask on the floor. That was Annie Black. She’s a very conservative lawmaker from Mesquite. She does not caucus with the Republicans nor the Democrats. Republicans did side with her in that she shouldn’t be censured, but she’s been pretty vocal about not wanting the vaccine. She was refusing to wear a mask on the floor, and they told her either wear a mask, go up to your office or be censured. So she’s not allowed to speak or vote on the floor at this point until she apologizes. So that’s a rare thing that we see happen.

There are also portions of the ghost gun bill that will be up for debate tomorrow on Saturday. It’s also a deadline today; it could be busy.

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